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KARACHI: As PIA’s flight operations remained suspended for the third consecutive day with about 350 flights having been cancelled since Tuesday, a ‘high-powered’ team of Sindh Rangers began on Thursday an investigation into the firing incident with a claim to have found “clues about the presence of miscreants in the crowd”.

But the claim was immediately rejected by representatives of the agitating PIA workers who said the ‘masked man’ referred to by the paramilitary force — and shown in a video released by Rangers — was the airline’s employee who had covered his face to protect himself from teargas shelling and he could prove his identity.

Meanwhile, the Malir district and sessions court ordered the airport police to register a case about the firing incident which resulted in the death of two PIA employees on a complaint of the workers’ Joint Action Committee (JAC) which sought to nominate in it Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, Privati­sation Commission Chair­man Mohammad Zubair, Senator Mushahidullah, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Aviation Shujaat Azeem, Civil Aviation Secretary Irfan Elahi and some senior officials of the national flag carrier.

Rangers released an official statement as well as the video after its Director General Maj Gen Bilal Akbar announced that a “high-powered” committee headed by a brigadier or an officer of equivalent rank would investigate the incident of firing during the workers’ demonstration outside the airport’s Old Terminal on Tuesday.

Rangers expressed their suspicion on the ‘masked man’ in the crowd minutes before the gunshots were fired.

Rangers’ investigation team started investigation into the Tuesday’s firing incident near the airport, the statement said.

“During initial investigation, clues to the presence of miscreants in the crowd, which can be seen in the attached video clip, have been found. The people, who were present on the occasion, are appealed to help identify this suspicious person in the crowd. They will be provided complete protection,” it added.

A few hours later, JAC leader Sohail Baloch rejected the impression and said the man in the footage was a PIA employee and he put on the mask only to protect himself from teargas shelling. “We can even produce him for identity,” he said while talking to journalists outside the PIA head office near Old Terminal where dozens of workers have been holding a sit-in for more than one week against the privatisation of the airline.

“That day everyone knows there was an intense teargas shelling from police. So not only one, there were several protesters who had put on masks to protect themselves,” he said.

Mr Baloch said the airport SHO had recorded JAC leaders’ statements before formally registering the case. If the workers did not find the FIR according to their complaint with anti-terror charges, they would move the court again, he added.

CRISIS DEEPENS: PIA’s crisis deepened because of prolonged suspension of its flight operations. Sources in the airline said that over 350 flights had been cancelled or affected since Tuesday. The organisation suffered a loss of over Rs2.5 billion.

“Out of the airline’s 38 operational aircraft, 19 are on lease. The number of cancelled flights and the losses will continue to increase as flight operations remain suspended. No serious efforts are being made to resolve the issue,” they added.

“The monthly salary bill of the airline is around Rs1.2 billion,” said a source privy to recent calculations.

With an undeterred stand taken by all associations of PIA employees and a lukewarm response from the federal authorities, the issue doesn’t seem to end any time soon, though the two sides time and again agreed that the crisis could be resolved through talks.

“The workers will continue to protest till the government accepts their demand and abolishes its plan to privatise the airline,” Nasrullah Afridi, a spokesman for the JAC, told Dawn.

“We have heard that a committee has been constituted to take steps and issue punitive orders against the protesting workers under the Essential Services Maintenance Act 1952. But we are united and ready to give sacrifices,” he said.

On the other hand, the government seems more interested in looking for alternatives rather than holding talks with the protesting workers.

DEALS WITH PRIVATE AIRLINES: PIA finalised on Thursday different arrangements with various private airlines – one of them owned by Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi – to facilitate the inland and outbound passengers affected by the strike.

“An agreement has been reached with Airblue to accept passengers with confirmed PIA tickets for flights to Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Dubai, Muscat, Jeddah and Riyadh,” said a spokesman for the PIA.

“PIA has also finalised arrangements with Shaheen Air to accept such passengers for domestic flights. Passengers may contact PIA’s service counters at airports to convert their tickets to these private airlines. The passengers having PIA’s confirmed tickets at any international destination can also contact PIA’s staff in their respective countries for conversion of their tickets. They will also be adjusted in various international airlines,” he said.

LAHORE: Passengers continued to suffer as no solution to the standoff is in sight. The PIA management’s steps like engaging Airblue, Saudi Airlines and Eithad Airways to facilitate passengers with confirmed PIA tickets have not fully worked yet.

On Thursday, four international and 10 domestic flights were cancelled from Lahore.

PESHAWAR: One domestic and three international flights from Bacha Khan International Airport were cancelled, officials said.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and other politicians visited the PIA’s main booking office and expressed sympathy with the protesting employees.

GILGIT: The flight operation between Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad remained suspended for the past three days, leaving hundreds of travellers, including foreigners and officials, stranded in both destinations.

PIA’s booking office at Gilgit airport remained closed.

Safder Hussain, a resident of Gilgit, said that a number of patients who had been referred to hospitals in other parts of the country were stuck in the region.

He said patients and senior citizens could not endure the 34-hour long journey through Karakoram Highway. People also avoid travelling on the highway because of security reasons.

The people of the region called upon the government to make alternative arrangements in the wake of the continued strike to end their miseries. They also sought operation of private airlines to the region.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2016